Food Taboos and Preferences

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Food Taboos and Preferences. Ch. 4 Key 2. Food preferences. Food preferences are acquired by enculturation children learn both which foods are edible and which foods taste good All cultures have preferred foods, which constitute a subset of actual or possible food sources
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Food Taboos and Preferences Ch. 4 Key 2 Food preferences
  • Food preferences are acquired by enculturation
  • children learn both which foods are edible and which foods taste good
  • All cultures have preferred foods, which constitute a subset of actual or possible food sources
  • Subcultures can have preferred foods as well
  • Food preferences can change through borrowing, diffusion and migration
  • Example: pasta originated in China, sushi bars are popular in the US
  • Feasting foods are eaten on special occasions
  • ‘Famine food’ are resources that are considered edible but not eaten unless preferred foods are scarce
  • Examples: ?
  • Food restrictions
  • Cultures differ in what is considered edible
  • Food restrictions are not dependent on nutritional value
  • In some cases scarce resources in the environment are restricted, in others not
  • Food restrictions apply to both plant and animal resources
  • Some foods are restricted to subsets of individuals
  • can depend on clan affiliation, age, gender, pregnancy, status
  • There is a continuum between food restrictions and food taboos
  • Food taboos
  • The consequences of breaking a food taboo are harsher than for breaking a food restriction
  • There are two types of food taboos
  • applies to all individuals of a culture
  • applies to a subset of individuals in a culture
  • Most food taboos apply to animal resources
  • Most well known food taboos
  • Pigs not eaten by Muslims, Jews, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians
  • Cows not eaten by Hindus
  • Dogs not eaten in Western world and many other cultures
  • Carnivores eaten in few cultures
  • Almost universal taboo against eating humans
  • More restricted food taboos
  • Can be restricted to culture or to subset of individuals in a culture
  • Examples of applying to whole culture
  • blood products (US)
  • fish (Cushitic cultures- Horn of Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, Sudan and Egypt.
  • deer (many Amazonian cultures)
  • Reasons for food taboos
  • Early anthropologists - quirk of culture
  • Environment - not suitable for area or scarce
  • Medical reasons - unhealthy
  • Economic reasons - more value alive
  • Symbolic reasons - unnatural
  • Social reasons - to increase cohesion or reinforce differences
  • Milk
  • Preferred food among some cultures
  • Restricted to young children among other cultures
  • Sent as food aid to developing countries after WWII
  • many people got sick
  • at first interpreted as due to using the powdered milk wrong
  • then lactose intolerance was discovered
  • Adult lactose intolerance
  • among adults in Asia and West Africa, Europe and North America
  • Lactose tolerance
  • Europe (north of the alps), Northern India, pastoral groups
  • Cows
  • Preferred food in most cultures
  • Harris argues that the products of living cows are important for Indian economy
  • Womack - alternate view
  • Aryans banned cattle sacrifice and established caste system
  • outcastes unclean and can eat cattle
  • Food taboo to reinforce status differences
  • Pigs
  • Pigs preferred food in Scandinavia, China, Pacific Islands
  • Medical explanation
  • pigs wallow in their excrements to keep cool in hot and dry environments
  • carry diseases (trichinosis)
  • Therefore pigs are unclean and unhealthy and tabooed
  • Marvin Harris (
  • Good to Eat 1985) argues for an economic adaptation
  • Israelites cut down woodland for agriculture and destroyed natural forage for pigs
  • pigs had to be fed grain thus competing with humans
  • pigs were not useful for plowing, milk or wool
  • Food taboo established because pigs were too costly
  • Mary Douglas
  • ( Purity and Danger 1966) argues for a symbolic reason
  • all societies classify foods as unclean or clean
  • some items are anomalous and treated as unclean
  • clean, edible animals should have cloven hooves and chew cud
  • pigs have cloven hooves but don’t chew cud
  • Tabooed because didn’t fit into category
  • Dogs
  • Dogs are preferred food in some Chinese and Pacific Island cultures
  • Symbolic explanation
  • people don’t eat what is considered self, part of family or group
  • dogs are seen as part of family, protects and give companionship
  • Therefore there is a food taboo against eating dog in most cultures
  • Anti-Dogs
  • Marvin Harris suggests the reason is economic
  • dogs used for transport, hunting, protection, warmth, companionship
  • services more valuable than meat in areas where other resources are abundant
  • Therefore dogs will be eaten in cultures where their services are not needed and/or resources are scarce
  • Humans
  • Cannibalism very rare
  • Harner
  • (American Anthropologist 4:117-35, 1977) argues a materialist perspective
  • Aztecs sacrificed and ate large numbers of captives
  • they had high populations and few domestic animals
  • Therefore they ate humans to obtain protein
  • Womack (Being Human 2001) suggests the reason was political
  • the Aztecs had many political enemies
  • Sacrifice provided a means to get rid of military rivals and extend their territory
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